Music Monday: Makris: Variations and Song

Most likely, if you were to ask someone whether they recognized the name Andreas Makris, you'd get one of two responses, either a blank stare, or a flash of recognition for the composer of the Aegean Festival Overture. (Whether that flash would be of excitement or horror would depend on how fond the person is of mixed meter and Eb clarinets in their uppermost register. . . ) That's a fantastic piece, and probably directly responsible for at least 70% of my meter changes (it was originally for orchestra, but that version is not nearly as iconic), but it turns out that unlike some one-hit-wonder composers, Makris's other works are actually strikingly good, and surprisingly varied to boot, so today we're featuring one of them.

Andreas Makris was born 7 March, 1930 in Salonika, Greece, and spent the early years of his life there. His early piano studies were cut short by the outbreak of World War Two, but then his father traded salt and olive oil to a starving man in exchange for a violin, and Makris began teaching himself that instrument. After graduating from the national conservatory in Greece, he emigrated to the United States in 1950, and ultimately graduated from the Mannes School of Music in 1956, before going on to continue studying at the Aspen Music Festival and, subsequently, traveling to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger. Instead of staying in France or returning to Greece as might be expected, he settled back in the United States, quickly taking a position in the violin section of the National Symphony Orchestra, where he played for 28 years.

Keeping his hand in the composing game was easier than it might have been for many in a similar position, as the conductor Mstislav Rostropovich fell in love with his style and commissioned more works from him than he did from any other composer, and in 1970, Makris became the first composer to have a work premièred at the Kennedy Center. From 1979 to 1989, he served as the Composer in Residence for the NSO, helping, among other duties, Rostropovich sort thru the piles of unsolicited scores the orchestra received from compositional hopefuls. After his eventual retirement, he threw himself even more enthusiastically into composing, ultimately leaving behind a body of upwards of 100 works at the time of his death in February of 2005. Getting all of these published is an ongoing project of the Makris Foundation, which seems to be uploading many of the scores to the IMSLP so that people can study them freely — a strikingly admirable move for open access to great art.

Right from the start of the Variations and Song (1979), it's clear we're in very different waters than those of the Aegean Festival Overture. Violins and violas in unison present a lean, searching line that cycles repeatedly thru all twelve notes of the Western chromatic scale. After an endless, suffocating minute, other strings join in and add more motion, a welcome breath of air as the texture gradually thickens. Suddenly, an unexpected major chord springs out of the turbulence and pulls the ensemble up short. This ushers in the first entrance of the woodwinds, as well as the first change to a faster tempo, tho the major tonality of the chord is swiftly rejected, and we're back in an atonal wash. At the climax of this section, the percussion instruments enter for the first time, de-stabilizing the meter and paving the way for a galumphing dance in the brass.

In the riotous affirmation that follows, the ensemble eventually settles into a groove in ⅞ + 5/4 (more or less), but this is soon brought up short, leaving a searching solo flute to peep out a mournful descending figure that is repeatedly cut short by the piccolo and triangle. This soon unleashes a surprisingly violent outburst of sonic chaos, foreshadowing passages yet to come. There is another dance interlude, but one that again peters out. A solo oboe hesitantly intones a multi-part line, each phrase separated by a maelstrom of improvisatory, de-synchronized lines. As the aghast echoes fade away, the strings launch a blistering fugue, one that gradually sweeps thru the ensemble.

Soon, the texture once more thins, leaving an english horn to lay out the original theme under mercurial, dancing figures in the upper winds. The fugue theme makes a determined re-appearence, but is soon subsumed into a ghostly wasteland where pointed brass chords are echoed by ghostly string halos, and the percussion tap out mysterious patterns in the background. The temple block and bass drum eventually find each other and stabilize into a regular pattern, marking the end of the variations and the beginning of the song. Said song is presented first by the oboe and then the other winds, gradually growing in tempo, ornamentation, and instrumental color until the entire orchestra joins in an ecstatic dance. There are no further interjections or interludes in store — the music presses forward, gaining momentum inexorably to go out in a heady, headlong rush.